Mobile Processing Units Help Small Farmers Find Profit in Poultry

Mobile processing units are portable setups with equipment to process chickens for meat. The low-cost method lets farmers handle their own poultry harvests.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Carla Wilson

Recent years have seen local food movements and sustainability initiatives go mainstream. Where discussions about cruelty-free meats and organic produce were once limited to farmers market booths and natural-grocer aisles, today the clarion call for responsible ingredients can be heard loud and clear from all corners of the national landscape. People want good food.

If you’ve got a coop of backyard layers or a field of free-range hens, you’ve probably already experienced this, as friends and neighbors—and sometimes strangers in your driveway—ask if you have a spare dozen or two fresh eggs to sell. But when hens grow old and become infrequent layers, or a small farm looks to expand its offerings to include sustainable poultry, chicken keepers often go hunting for a local facility for help slaughtering and processing their chickens.

Finding a chicken processor, however, is often an unexpected challenge. Slaughterhouses in general are a growing rarity in our modern age, and facilities that possess the equipment, permits and manpower to handle poultry are even more difficult to locate. If you’re lucky enough to live close to such an operation, cost can present additional challenges, trimming the profit potential for a single bird down to just pennies. For small farmers looking to raise a few hundred birds per year to provide sustainable poultry for their communities, the breakeven scenario doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately, there is another option: You can do it yourself. While admittedly not for everyone, processing your own chickens dramatically reduces the cost per bird and makes the notion of independent, small-farm poultry operations a financially tenable reality. But the viability of grabbing a knife and a kill cone and heading out back varies widely depending on where you live: While some local governances allow farm-based processing operations a set number of meat sales per year, some states have strict laws against such operations. And as agricultural and food-safety legislation tightens across the country, even those who enjoy farm-friendly laws toward small producers fear one day waking up to find their livelihood outlawed.

Mobile Processing Units

The best answer to this poultry dilemma is what’s known as a mobile processing unit. Simply put, mobile processing units are full, portable setups that provide all necessary equipment to process chickens for meat. The basic provisions of such a unit include kill cones for slaughter, a scalder to loosen feathers, a defeathering tumbler and sanitary hanging hooks and surfaces for eviscerating and processing whole or cut-up chickens.

A basic MPU can exist on an open-air flatbed trailer and serve an economical purpose, providing equipment for on-farm processing of a modest amount of chickens. These units are especially helpful for people who only occasionally slaughter chickens, such as when a flock of laying hens has aged beyond productivity. Typically, these birds are processed as lower-cost stew hens, as their toughened meat has more limited use than that of broilers, and renting the use of an MPU makes more sense than buying and storing expensive equipment for occasional use.

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These basic stopgap processing-units are available for purchase from a small number of producers, such as Cornerstone Farm Ventures of Norwich, New York. If you’re interested in renting an MPU, contact your local county extension agent to inquire about availability in your area.

Kentucky State University

In some states, however, on-farm processing isn’t a legal option, and providing low-cost methods for small-scale farmers to handle their own poultry slaughter becomes a challenge. Fortunately, sustainable farming advocates seeking a template for processing solutions under legal constriction have somewhere to look: Kentucky.

“This is the first MPU in the country,” says Steve Skelton, MPU Coordinator at Kentucky State University’s College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems. “Kentucky has always been this ‘let them do it first and then we’ll follow’ type thing, because the state has the most stringent laws attached to it. We’re not like other states where you can do it out in the open, in a parking lot or whatever.

“I get calls from all over the U.S. every year,” he says. “People want to come and look at it and get the information. Washington state, several other states—they have them now.”

Kentucky State University’s story is more than enough evidence of regulatory hesitance to approve MPU operations. First conceptualized in 1996 by a group of central Kentucky farmers, the endeavor quickly attracted the assistance of powerful allies as Heiffer International, Partners for Families and Farms, Kentucky State University and University of Kentucky came on board. The groups worked to convert an 8-by-20-foot aluminum horse trailer into a state-approved mobile facility that could be hauled to small farmers’ properties. And everything seemed to going well—until the project came to a screeching halt.

“Everything was completely in place, built and put up, and they unveiled it at the state capital,” Skelton says. “And everybody was right pleased with it, but when people started using it, the state government health department said, ‘Oh, no.’ It was shut down when they couldn’t come to an agreement about water issues. The state said wastewater had to be put in a holding tank and pumped out; it couldn’t be put out on a leach field or anything. So the MPU just sat idle.”

The MPU was parked under an awning, where it remained until 2005, when Skelton was hired on a one-year grant contract to find a use for it. “I built a docking station for it, got it cleaned up and ready to use,” he says. “When my grant was up, they asked if I would like to work for them full-time to keep the MPU going.”

Skelton implemented a number of changes to the unit to make it more user-friendly, as well as developing an aquaculture and rabbit processing program. And though he still can’t take it to a farmer’s land, the MPU is mobile, traveling between three approved docking pads—at Frankfort’s KSU, Morehead State University and in Jackson County—with a fourth soon planned for London, Kentucky.

Skelton currently has more than 200 users of the MPU, all of whom receive training to become state-approved facility managers. “Once a year, we give a one-day class,” he says. “The first half is classroom-style training, where you watch videos and instructors give you information, and the second is actual hands-on training. Everyone has to process a chicken; they have to slaughter it and actually process it. That’s part of the test at the end of day they have to take and pass.”

The facility manager’s license is good for two years, and users are required to renew their certification every other year after. Certification for the initial two years is $75 and renews for $50 thereafter. If that seems like a bargain, that’s because it is.

“The reason we have the MPU is to help small farmers be more sustainable and to help make income on their property to support their families,” Skelton says. “And our price structure has not changed in 11 years. Farmers can process 100 birds in the MPU for $112.50, plus 22 cents per bag for vacuum packing.”

The facility gives farmers capabilities to take home either whole birds or value-added cut-up chickens, and, thanks to a special exemption from the USDA, birds processed at the MPU can be sold anywhere in Kentucky—from direct sale at market to grocery stores and restaurants—in full compliance with the law. And the MPU helps people help others too.

“I have seven high schools that are processing chickens and turkeys here,” Skelton says. “They do them for fundraisers and banquet opportunities. A couple of them even process birds that they give to the senior citizens’ home.”

In addition to running the MPU, Skelton is a staunch pastured-poultry advocate who regularly educates farmers on the benefits of fresh grass and sunshine. The KSU MPU is American Humane Society approved, Animal Welfare approved and organic approved, allowing farmers to sell meat in full confidence of their product.

mobile processing units poultry chickens
Carla Wilson

Using the MPU

On my recent visit to talk with Skelton at the KSU MPU, I found the trailer parked in its outbuilding, safely hidden inside the specially built structure. It wasn’t my first visit to the horse trailer; my family farm utilized the MPU for a handful of years, and I spent many hours inside slaughtering, cleaning and packaging broiler chickens.

Stepping through the building door, one sees the converted horse trailer, with various pieces of equipment sitting outside of it on the kill floor—a row of cones under a stun knife, used to render birds unconscious (a requirement for humane-certified slaughter); a large water bath that rotates birds in 140-degree water and loosens the feathers; and a large, cylindrical defeatherer.

There’s a small window in the horse trailer’s side that allows a tub of birds to pass to the pristine interior, which is lined with stainless steel prep surfaces and a ceiling-mounted track holding shackles; workers can hang birds for comfortable, efficient cleaning. To the front of the trailer, there’s a large, wheeled tub that holds ice water used to chill birds quickly; beyond that sits the vacuum-packing machine.

Are the KSU MPU, its imitators and the various on-farm units in operation across the country the small-farm saviors some herald them as? While it’s difficult to claim sustainable farming is a safe and surefire path to prosperity, Mobile processing units can be a definite benefit to farmers looking to add increased profitability to their operations. And when farmers can provide what a responsibility-minded market demands, this just might be a good time for chicken keepers.

Backyard Processing

While our family farm makes use of state-approved processing facilities for the poultry we sell, birds headed for our freezers—most often stew hens and young roosters—get processed in the backyard, with a homebrewed setup based on what we’ve used in licensed facilities.

Kill Cone: Available for purchase at farm-supply stores and online, these stainless steel cones attach to a tree and receive an upside-down bird’s head. Two quick cuts to both sides of the neck quickly bleeds out the animal for an efficient death.

Canning Pot, Propane Grill: Dipping a bird in 140-degree water loosens the feathers without cooking the meat. A propane grill, thermometer and attentive eye keep the water at the right temperature.

Defeatherer: Our only significant purchase, the tumbler removes feathers from the carcass. You can also purchase kits online for DIY defeathers, and I’ve seen converted washing machines do the trick as well.

Processing Surface: We use a stainless-steel sink-and-sideboards that a friend gave us, and we built a rolling stand to contain. The drain is left open, with a bucket set underneath to receive waste for later compost.

Coolers Filled With Ice: Chicken carcasses need to chill quickly to prevent bacterial growth, and a dedicated, ice-filled cooler does the trick.

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